Sunday, 28 August 2016

Market Day at Lorgues

The market meanders along several streets in the centre of Lorgues
We visited Lorgues on a Tuesday - market day - and navigating the narrow streets in our hire car I found myself confronted by a plethora of market stalls and the car I was following rapidly reversing towards me.

Trying shoes for size at the market's leather stall.
I’m a fairly confident driver, but reversing down a narrow street with parked cars either side and pedestrians wandering along with arms full of bags and baskets from the market, is not my idea of a gentle drive.

Luckily a car behind paused long enough for me to make a reverse two-point turn and escape, followed by the other reversing vehicle.

So it’s not surprising that I found a park just outside the town and we walked back in.

We were well rewarded. Lorgues has one of the best ever markets in Dracenie! The town is just 12km north-west of Les Arcs and is accessible by the No 9 bus for just over one euro each way.

The narrow streets were lined for blocks with an amazing array of different stalls selling shoes, clothes, trinkets, jewellery, lavender products, olive wood products – all interspersed by brasseries with tables and chairs in the shade inviting you to pause for a cold drink, before continuing up the main avenue towards the food.
Sacks full of herbs and spices tempt those culinary skills. 
And what food!

Fresh vegetables, ripened under the Provenҫal sun, tongue-zinging raspberries, juicy flat peaches and tree-ripened apricots like my mother used to grow. I felt a glow of health just looking at them.

Then of course were the cheeses, the stalls stacked with all kinds of sausage, sacks of bright spices and pungent herbs, the nougat – every kind you can imagine, lavender and acacia honeys, an array of hand-made ‘sirops’ (cordials) with exotic-sounding flavours of elderflower, tilleul (linden flower), or blackcurrant.
Colourful baskets by the hundreds.
There were hats and baskets, and scented terracotta shapes for your wardrobe. There were belts, and bathers and buckets and spades for the children. There were soaps - the special Savon de Marseille - and perfumes, kitchen utensils and tea towels and beautiful quilts and table cloths. There were even mattresses!
There was just so much, far too much to take in.
It called for a pause to collect our thoughts and to stop buying everything we saw. So the dark shade of a spreading plane tree beckoned with an ice cold beer for him and cider for me.
Just sitting back and watching the people as they meandered along the street, past the stalls - pausing to look and discuss whether to buy, dodging young children and dogs, making way for the odd pram or scooter - is a feast in itself.
Welcome respite after a morning browsing and shopping.
You see families with small children – so many prams; and teenagers, ears plugged and thumbs scrolling or tapping; and older people catching up with each other and setting the world – or maybe just the village - to right, is part of what makes France so special.

We ate a delicious ‘formule’ lunch at a beautiful little restaurant – featuring wines from the famous Château Berne (another place to visit just outside the town).

The market umbrellas were being folded away, the metal stands taken apart, wares packed away in vans, as the vendors closed and prepared to travel to wherever the market would be next morning.
The street slowly returned to normal as the crowds dispersed into homes or restaurants to spend the next two hours ‘à la table’ for lunch.  

It is a market I will return to – but maybe next time I’ll take the bus. 

* To explore the central Var region, why not spend some time at Maison Les Arcs in Les Arcs-sur-Argens?



Sunday, 21 August 2016

A town embraced by rock

Cotignac - showing the western end of the cliff face and the first of the two towers.
Not far from Les Arcs-sur-Argens – perhaps a half-hour drive – lies a beautiful little village that is not only stunning to look at, but has a wonderful atmosphere of lively wellbeing.

Houses are built into caves and the rock face.
Cotignac makes a terrific day trip for people wanting to explore the narrow alleyways through the town, the weekly market or just browse the main Cours Gambetta, with its shops and restaurants set beneath shady plane trees.

I have written about Cotignac before (The Quinces of Cotignac), but this time we wanted to explore the town itself, so we drove via Lorgues and Carcès, then turned north to find the town sheltered within an arc of sheer rocky cliffs.

Approaching from this direction, the breath-taking cliff, pock-marked with caves, creates an imposing backdrop  as Cotignac nestles centre stage below.

The 60-metre high escarpment stretches for 400 metres encircling the northern rim of the town, protecting it from the cold mistral wind when it sweeps down from the plain above.

As well as natural caves in the limestone face, people have also built underground – or troglodyte – homes into the cliffs. And the rock also makes up the rear walls of houses built along the base.

From the Mairie you can climb to the cliff top.
Centuries ago, the River Cassoles cascaded straight over these cliffs, crashing down onto the site where the town now stands. No wonder people made their homes deep in the cliff face and out of the way.
But in the 18th century, the river was diverted to the west of the town, rather than dividing it, and the town centre became established around the base of the rocks.

The cliffs are spectacular; they soar above the town and are visible at the end of many of the narrow streets. Being limestone, they have weathered into fascinating shapes, highlighted by the shadows that sweep slowly across during the day.

Stairs and passageways leading to the underground ‘troglodyte’ homes have been cut into the face of the rock.

We didn’t climb up to them – we weren’t sure whether we were allowed to or if the paths were private entrances.

However, we did take the tourist track up past a row of houses built out from the cliff face, many of which were little artisan cottages with views out across the wide valley to the south.

Looking south towards Carces from the top of the escarpment.
And from the square in front of the Mairie, there is another small pathway that winds its way up beneath imposing overhangs right to the top of the cliff and the two towers that stand high above the town.

These towers date back to the 13th century and were part of the original settlement at Cotignac.

Their height gave watchmen a view over the St Martin plain to the north and southwards across the broad valley towards Carcès and Entrecasteaux.

Looking below from the edge of the cliff is a tumble of traditional terracotta tiled roofs sloping down the valley beside the Cassoles River.

You can also see across to the point where the tiny church of Notre Dame des Graces sits. This was the church where Louis XIII and his wife, Anne of Austria, prayed for an heir – their wish being granted with the birth of Louis XIV nine months later.

Back in the town centre, you can wander the narrow streets where tiny galleries and artisans’ ateliers are tucked away, or just meander back into the Cours Gambetta to enjoy the ambience of its shops and restaurants and fountains set delightfully under the plane trees.

Tree-lined Cours Gambetta with its shops and restaurants.


Sunday, 14 August 2016

Roadside treasure

Poppies growing on wasteland among the olive trees.
One of the real pleasures in living for part of the year in rural France, is exploring on foot the many little roads and pathways that cross the countryside.
Breathing deeply: the scent of broom in full flower.
For not only do they take you to places you would never otherwise go, but you are accompanied in such style – by the roadside flowers.

Earlier this summer, an Aussie friend staying in Les Arcs-sur-Argens remarked on the variety of flowers and herbs growing in the fields and beside the roads and footpaths.

We arrived in May this year  to poppies of all variety of red, orange and pink unfolding their petals and bobbing in the breeze from rock faces, railway lines, pieces of disused ground and under cultivated olive trees.

The poppies – which I especially love – Lined the roadways wherever we walked.
Tiny flowers on the rock face along the gorge.
Yellow broom, also in flower, scented our path.

Then in June they were replaced by cornflowers that bent and waved their heads in the wind like a constantly moving sea of blue.

After the cornflowers came the intricate little white crocheted doilies of the Queen Anne’s Lace (or ‘Cow Parsley’ in southern England), pushing up wherever they could find room, but especially in an old vineyard among the sadly untended vines.
Then just before our return, the same field turned yellow as the white flowers produced an abundance of pollen and the entire golden carpet came alive with the buzzing of bees.

Even our trip to the Gorges of Verdon was marked by the little flowers pushing up between the inhospitable rocks along that precipitous drive.
Sometimes you find an 'added extra' on your path.
One of my most precious memories – something I could not photograph – was a very special scent.

It made me appreciate the fact that the people of Provence – famous for its exquisite perfumes – must grow up surrounded by this olfactory treat.

While walking down to the hypermarket, I saw a workman mowing the edges of the road. I love the smell of newly-cut grass, but instead of that particular scent, I caught the full panoply of freshly-cut herbs.

The roadside herbage is incredible – rosemary, thyme, fennel, occasionally a spike of lavender, other herbs I could not identify – but the scent really is as powerful as if you were holding a fresh bouquet of Herbes de Provence.
The delicate Queen Anne's Lace.
And whether you are walking on a tarmac roadside, or strolling along the gravel path up and over the hill towards the next village of Taradeau – or bush-bashing your way along tiny goat tracks from the Font du Loup up to the giant electricity pylon high above the Argens valley – you can be certain of finding something inexplicably beautiful at your feet.

You just have to follow your nose.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

The Secret 'Green Pearl'.

The hidden waterfall at Sillans-la-Cascade.
There is a secret place in La Dracénie - the tourist region in the centre of the Var based around Draguignan - where, despite the summer heat, it is a cool and inviting oasis.

Called Sillans-la-Cascade, the village is located in the shade of tree-covered hills tucked between Cotignac and Salernes.

Sillans-la-Cascade is a pretty village filled with ancient shuttered buildings in the Provence style - pale yellows and pinks with shutters in different shades of blue, and of course, the curved terrcotts tiled roofs.

Known as 'la perle verte' or the green pearl, its ancient tree-lined streets hide many surprises.

Firstly, La Mairie - the Town Hall - a large, four-storey rectangular building, was constructed in 1800 by Rolland de Sillans on the site of an ancient château once surrounded by high stone remparts, the remains of which are still standing.

In the heart of the village are narrow streets, called ruelles, which snake between the old stone buildings. A number of artists and artisans have made their homes here.
La Mairie, built on the site of an ancient château. Photo: Var Matin.

Below is the church of Saint-Etienne and opposite it, in top of the hill above the town, is the recently restored chapel of Saint-Laurent. The view from up here shows the small village completely surrounded by luxuriant green vegetation.

The vegetation is nourished by the River Bresque and in the square behind the Mairie, there is a large underground stone tank which was once used to store water from it for the town's fountains.

Of course, water is the source of Sillans' attraction - and after exploring the village, it is a must to discover the cascade - or waterfall.
The path leads through a 'jungle' of undergrowth.

Following the blue-green - really more of an aqua - river, is a walking trail which starts from the village in the shade of leafy plane trees.

When we visited, we didn't go to the lookout at the top of the waterfall, where there is a panoramic view of the countryside and the river valley - but not the cascade itself.

Instead we continued along, through native scrub which became more and more overgrown with strands of tree climbers hanging down like string curtains from the branches above making the area look like something from a fantasy film.
Cooling off (illegally) in the pool below.

It was a hot day, but as we wound our way down the path - and some slippery steps thoughtfully provided with handrails - we could sense a freshness in the air from the moving water.

Distant shouts from people already there told us that despite warnings, some were swimming in the water below.

Then all of a sudden we emerged into the most beautiful cool, green light and the bridal veil of water tumbling 42 metres down the cliff face. A wooden viewing platform directly opposite the waterfall is ideal for taking photographs.

Sunbaking on the rocks in the Bresque River.
What surprised me most was not that people were swimming - against regulations - in the pool below, but the colour of the water itself - a brilliant opaque aqua.

The only other time I have seen this colour is in the Verdon River which travels through France's 'Grand Canyon' to the north and into a similarly-coloured Lake Ste Croix.

They are related.

The colour comes from the calcium and fluoride in the water. In fact the amount of fluoride in the water is so high that people are advised not to swim in - or drink - it.

And despite the fact that it is also very cold - only 14'C even at the height of summer - it was such a hot day that I couldn't blame the young people frolicking below.